Meridian Star

July 21, 2013

Conservation programs depend on federal funding

Farm Bill stalled in Congress

By Terri Ferguson Smith /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     MARION — It's not just farmers who talk about the nation's Farm Bill.

    There are numerous federal agencies that fall under the funding of the Farm Bill, which has to be renewed or rewritten every five years. At a meeting of state conservation officials, the Farm Bill was among topics of concern. The 21-county Central District of the Natural Resources Conservation Services met in Marion on Thursday to go over ideas and to get an update on federal legislation that affects the federal agencies funded by the Farm Bill.

    Samantha Newman, public policy director for Mississippi Farm Bureau, said the Farm Bill has stalled in Congress. Slowing down the legislative process is a disagreement over funding of the largest part of the bill, which is the nutrition portion, Newman said.

    The House of Representatives bill did not include the nutrition program, which represents about 80 percent of the Farm Bill budget. It includes funding for school lunches, food stamps and WIC, which provides food for women, infants and children.

    A Senate bill did include nutrition funding, but so far the two bodies of Congress have not hammered out an agreement for a final bill.

    The process of getting a Farm Bill started in 2012, but a year later, one has not been approved.

    "We've come so close but we still have a ways to go in actually getting a Farm Bill," Newman said.

    On the matter of conservation funding, Newman said the House cut $7 billion and Senate cut it $6 billion.

    "The whole bill takes reductions. Each title is reduced in some form for deficit reduction," Newman said.

    Agencies like NRCS, Farm Service Association, and other federal agencies that fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture depend on the Farm Bill.

    Jerry Smith, NRCS Central Area vice president, said the Farm Bill is on the forefront of everybody's mind.

    "We've been living now for a year and a half, two years, without a Farm Bill. We don't seem to be  able to get one passed. It is important that we know where we are going so that we can assist farmers in making wise choices and doing the things that they need to do to keep feeding us," Smith said.

    NRCS helps fund major levee renovations when the money is available, Smith said.

    "One of the things that we are really concerned about right now are these old levees that are in place at these reservoirs. A lot of these levees are in need of repair but because of no Farm Bill and sequestration, we are not getting the funding to repair them," Smith said. "People have built homes in areas that used to flood. Because levees were built, people built homes. If we have a major breach in one of those levees, we're going to lose a catastrophic amount of property. There are reservoirs all over every county in central Mississippi."

    Protecting the environment and protecting farmers is essential, he said.

    "All of our programs have been cut because of the lack of funding. We understand that we are in tight economic times, but at the same time, we are the best fed country in the world, Smith said. "One of our greatest natural resources is forestry and forestry is big in this area. Some of the programs that we have traditionally funded in forestry are not being funded at the level we would like to see them at."

    Kevin Kennedy, acting state conservationist, NRCS, said some conservation programs are still funded pretty well. As they find more funds for areas like the Mississippi Delta, Kennedy said, it frees funds that would have otherwise have gone to that part of the state to the East side of Mississippi.

    "Conservation is something that everyone knows is needed," Kennedy said. "We still assist local cities and counties with emergency work."

    Like Smith, Kennedy acknowledged that there are sacrifices to be made.

    "We're having to cut back and there are some things we are not able to do now because of the cuts but it's not all branches of government," Kennedy said. "You've got to take your share of cuts and you have to  cut back. For us to get through this, everyone has to cut back."